Monthly Archives: September 2012

Riding Coattails: Tissot’s earliest success, 1860 – 1861

The medievalism in Tissot’s work can be attributed partially to the influence of the the towns in which he grew up, and partially to the popularity of the work of the Belgian painter Hendrik Leys (1815  1869).  Leys’ painting, The Trental Mass of Berthal de Haze – replete with numerous characters enacting a historical drama against a detailed architectural background  won a gold medal at the 1855 Paris International Exhibition.

English: The Trental Mass for Berthal de Haze ...

The Trental Mass for Berthal de Haze (1854) by Henri Leys (1815-1869), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium, Netherlands.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1859, Tissot traveled to Antwerp, augmenting his art education by taking lessons in Leys’ studio.  There he made friends with a young Dutch art student working with Leys, Lourens Tadema (1836 – 1912; the painter moved to London in 1870 and restyled himself Lawrence Alma-Tadema).  Working with Leys was, according to Alma-Tadema, “A very beautiful and interesting task [that had a] direct bearing upon my own art tendencies.”  Tissot must have had similar feelings.  Studying under Leys, who himself imitated painting styles he admired, Tissot’s work now began to combine academic technique, minute detail, historical accuracy and a dark paint surface with scenes from Goethe’s Faust, one of the greatest works of German literature.

German Romanticism, especially Goethe’s 1808 version of the legend of Faust, was popular at this time.  Tadema even had painted a water-color, Faust and Marguerite (Op. VII, 1857).  Charles Gounod’s grand opera version of Faust premiered at the Théatre-Lyrique in Paris on March 19, 1859.

English: Lawrence Alma-Tadema's art

Faust and Marguerite (1857), by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often overlooked in commentaries on Tissot’s adoption of Goethe’s Faust for subject matter is the work of painter Ary Scheffer (1795  1858).  Scheffer, who had Dutch origins but painted in France, enjoyed great success in Paris with his series of paintings based on FaustFaust in his Study, Faust Doubting, Faust Holding the Cup, Marguerite at the Sabbat, Marguerite Leaving Church, Marguerite at the Spinning Wheel, Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1846), and the most popular of all, Marguerite at the Fountain (1852).

Faust and Marguerite in the Garden

Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1846), by Ary Scheffer  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scheffer’s biographer wrote of the profound experience felt by readers of Goethe’s tragic drama in verse, and its potential in the hands of an artist:  “Profoundly as it explores the mysterious relations between the sensual and the intellectual natures of man, whilst exhibiting the varied workings of human passions and weakness, Faust deals likewise with the tragic element, in a way to touch the deepest chords of sympathy.”

As the Salon was held biennially after 1855, the next was in 1861.  For the Salon that year, Tissot had six paintings accepted, including three based on Goethe’s FaustThe Meeting of Faust and Marguerite, Faust and Marguerite in the Garden, and Marguerite at the Service.  He had imitated Leys’ fifteenth-century costumes, historical architecture and meticulous details.

Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1861), by James Tissot. Oil on panel, 25 by 35 in. (63.50 by 88.90 cm). Private Collection. (Photo:

A critic of Tissot’s medieval scenes wrote, “Stop thief!  Leys could shout to the Tissot painting; he took my individuality, my skin, like a thief at night carries off a piece of clothing left on a chair.”  But the 24-year-old Tissot had shrewd instincts:  his paintings combined the popular style of Leys with the tense Faust subjects of current interest, and painted quite differently by Scheffer.

Tissot and his painting, Le Recontre de Faust et de Marguerite (The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite) attracted the attention of the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, Director-General of Museums, who purchased the painting by an order of July 17, 1860 on behalf of the government for the Luxembourg Museum for 5,000 francs.  (The Luxembourg was founded in 1818 to display works by living artists, who could not be exhibited at the Louvre).  This was a huge honor for the very young James Tissot.  Nieuwerkerke was the man to impress – thanks to his mistress, Princess Mathilde (the Emperor’s first cousin) he was in charge of the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the Salon.  Le Recontre de Faust et de Marguerite was exhibited at the Salon in 1861.

Tissot’s mother died on May 4, 1861.  There is no record of whether she knew that her son’s artistic talent, which she had believed in, had earned him the honor of having a painting included in the pantheon of French art.  But she left him an inheritance, and though he remained in debt through at least 1863, he set off for Milan, Venice, and Florence.

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012.  All rights reserved.


Becoming James: Tissot’s first Salon, 1859

Within three years of his arrival in Paris, Tissot was ready to exhibit his work at the Salon, the huge government-administered annual art market showcasing the glory of France.  Each spring, the Salon provided a six-week spectacle throughout Europe and Great Britain for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who flocked past the floor-to-ceiling rows of paintings.

The Salon was an art competition as well as the social event of the year.  Artists struggling to build a reputation – and make money – chose conventional mythological, historical or religious subjects and hoped to win at least an honorable mention, if not a first-, second–, or even third-class medal.  The government would buy paintings considered noteworthy for the national collection, a distinction for any artist.  The highest prize available was the Prix de Rome in historical painting; the five-year scholarship to study classical art in Rome could make a career.  As of 1857, decisions about  Salon entries and winners were made by the forty members – the “immortals” – of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.  Their average age was 68, and most of them were (or had been) acclaimed painters of heroic historical dramas or large-scale church murals and ceilings.

Competing with established artists, the 23-year-old Jacques Joseph Tissot — likely borrowing the name from his friend James Whistler — submitted his paintings to the jury under the name James Tissot.  Each year, seven to eight thousand pictures were submitted.  Fewer than half met with acceptance, indicating official government approval.  Rejected paintings would be stamped on the back with a red R – destroying the picture’s value to art buyers.

Édouard Manet, who had opened his own studio in 1856, was now 27.  Like Whistler, he had dodged the Académie des Beaux-Arts, instead choosing to study for six years under the relatively innovative young history painter, Thomas Couture (1815 – 1879).  Manet also had spent hours copying paintings in the Louvre as well as museums and churches in Italy, Amsterdam, Vienna and Prague.  His 1859 painting, The Absinthe Drinker, was the first he had submitted to the Salon jury.  A large-scale, full-length depiction of a street drunk, it was summarily rejected as debauched and lacking in detail and technique.

Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, 1859

Édouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, 1859 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jimmy Whistler had been studying art in Paris a year longer than Tissot, and he had seized on a Paris revival of etching, teaching himself this ancient technique of reproducing drawings as prints.  In 1858, he published a remarkable series known as the French Set, etchings which mainly were spontaneous depictions of people and places he had observed on his travels.  Two of these prints were accepted by the 1859 Salon jury, but his strikingly original oil painting, At the Piano, was rejected.  He was far from the only artist rejected, however, and his painting earned praise from Gustave Courbet, the notorious socialist and artistic agitator who had returned from his travels in Germany in February 1859.  Whistler at 24 had transformed himself from an amusing foreigner at the cafés of Paris to an admired etcher and a figure of note within a growing group of rebellious painters.

English: At the Piano

James Whistler, At the Piano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Tissot, on the other hand, had five entries accepted for the 1859 Salon, one called Portrait de Mme T…, a small painting of his mother.  There was another small portrait (Mlle H. de S…), and two designs for stained glass windows.  The fifth painting was Promenade dans la Neige, which depicted a young medieval couple taking a winter’s walk.  While Tissot’s portraits received some positive notice, one critic — an admirer of Courbet’s — wondered if Tissot was amusing himself by placing student work in a frame and suggested he should have left Promenade dans la Neige in his studio.  Of the medieval subject matter, the critic sniped at the young artist, “What are you, blind to the life around you?”

James Tissot ignored the criticism and pressed on.  His career in the capital of the European art world was launched.

James Tissot, Self-Portrait.  Courtesy

James Tissot, Self-Portrait. Courtesy

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012.  All rights reserved.

On his own: Tissot as a Paris art student, 1855 — 1858


NOTE:  If you do not have a Kindle e-reader, you may download free Kindle reading apps for PCs, Smartphones, tablets, and the Kindle Cloud Reader to read The Hammock:  A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, by Lucy Paquette.  Read reviews.

When Jacques Joseph Tissot realized that what he really wanted was a career in art instead of architecture, his businessman father was less than thrilled.  Tissot’s father told him that if he was determined to pursue this unreliable profession, he was going to have to make it on his own – with no financial help.  Jacques’ mother was sympathetic and recommended her son to the 28-year-old Parisian painter Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828 – 1891), who was from Nantes.  Jacques left home at 19, in 1856 (i.e before he turned 20 that October).

Paris was over ten times the size of Nantes, and civic planner Baron Haussmann was just beginning the massive modernization of the dark, dirty and overgrown medieval city that would take place between 1853 and 1870.

Tissot started out renting a succession of student rooms in the Latin Quarter, earning an income drawing portraits of maids and hotel housekeepers for thirty or forty francs a head.  Some of his portraits fetched 60 or 100 francs each.

Portrait of a Woman (c. 1860-61), by James Tissot.  Courtesy

Portrait of a Woman (c. 1860-61), by James Tissot. Courtesy

On January 26, 1857, he registered for permission to copy paintings at the Louvre.  He is thought to have met the American James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), that year; the two art students reportedly met while copying Ingres’ 1819 Ruggiero Freeing Angelica side by side in the Luxembourg Museum.

Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica (cf. Category:Perse...

Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica (cf. Category:Perseus and Andromeda). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whistler was a hard-working, high-living dandy who had lived in Paris for two years and supplemented the decent living allowance from his mother by selling copies of paintings in the Louvre.  Whistler did not even attempt to enter the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts, where originality and self-expression were faults.  Instead, he took various drawing classes and enrolled as a student of the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre (1806 – 1874).  [Gleyre would eventually instruct Frédéric Bazille (1841 – 1870), Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899), Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919).]

On March 9, 1857, Tissot enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, though there is little documentation on the regularity of his attendance at classes, which included mathematics, anatomy and drawing, but not painting.  Like Élie Delaunay, who was now in Rome, Tissot studied painting independently under Flandrin and Lamothe.  Both men had been students of the great Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867), and taught his principles.

Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809 – 1864) was a prolific portrait artist but was mainly celebrated for his monumental church murals in Paris, Lyon, and Nîmes.  His picture, Young Male Nude Seated beside the Sea (1836) was shown at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris.  It was purchased in 1857 by Napoleon III’s civil list, and the emperor then donated it to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.  Flandrin’s St. Clair Healing the Blind, painted for the cathedral of Nantes, earned him a first-class medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1855.  As Flandrin was so busy, he increasingly directed his students to the studio of his former student, Louis Lamothe.

Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea (1836), by Hippolyte Flandrin. (

Louis Lamothe (1822 – 1869) was described as a timid and sickly man who had never met his potential, but he was a clear and precise draftsman with a passion for detail.  Eventually, Tissot studied only under Lamothe and acknowledged that his own work was significantly influenced by Lamothe’s instruction.

Self-Portrait with White Collar (c. 1857), by Edgar Degas.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  (Photo by Lucy Paquette)

Self-Portrait with White Collar (c. 1857), by Edgar Degas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Lucy Paquette)

In 1859, Tissot would meet a student of Lamothe’s with whom he became close friends – Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917).  Degas, who had studied intermittently for four years under Lamothe, described him as “more idiotic than ever” and left the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1856.  Degas spent the next three years in central Italy, travelling while living with his prosperous family in Naples (Degas’ father – a banker – was from Naples, his mother from New Orleans).

Probably through Degas, Tissot would eventually meet the charismatic, blonde Édouard Manet (1832–1883), who in turn would introduce him to the 39-year-old bad-boy Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877).  Their revolutionary ideas would ultimately change Tissot’s work – and his life.

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012.  All rights reserved.

“I was a lazybones”: James Tissot’s youth, 1836 – 1855

Jacques Joseph Tissot’s parents were self-made, prosperous merchants and traders in the textile and fashion industry in Nantes, a bustling seaport on the banks of the Loire River, 35 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Tissot family, of Italian ancestry, were minor gentry from the area of Trevillers, a small French village in the Jura Mountains, close to the Swiss border.  Tissot’s father, Marcel Théodore Tissot, was born there in 1807.  He set off to seek his fortune on the other side of the country when he was in his twenties.  In Nantes, tall-masted ocean vessels from all over the world docked at the wharves, and Tissot’s father started out as a wholesale dealer.

Tissot’s mother, Marie Durand, was from a royalist family who had come to Nantes after the Revolution.  Marie’s father was a veterinary surgeon, and she and her sister Arsène were partners in a successful millinery company.  Marie, born in 1802, brought a substantial dowry when she married in 1832.  Jacques Joseph, born on October 15, 1836, was the second of the couple’s four sons.

Tissot’s father eventually established a booming business as a wholesale linen draper – a trader in fabrics and dress trimmings to retailers and exporters.  In 1845, at the age of 38, he purchased a second home in the country, in Besançon at the edge of the Jura Mountains – the imposing eighteenth-century Château de Buillon (which Tissot would inherit in 1888).

Tissot’s parents were deeply religious Catholics, and when he was 12, they sent him to the Jesuit college at Brugelette in Flanders, Belgium.  He continued his education in France, first in the town of Vannes in Brittany and then at Dole in the Jura.  Living in these historic towns, he spent a good deal of time sketching the local architecture – perhaps more time than he spent studying.  In later years he wrote:

I do not think there was ever such a lazybones as I.  I am one of those rare specimens of pupils who had to pass three times through the examination for the third class.  But on the other hand, my desk was a perfect museum.   Everything was to be seen there, drawings, sculpture, architecture, a gothic belfry in wood, with an octagonal dome, a spire, bell-turrets, etc.

Crafted during stolen hours, these wooden models were influenced by the winding streets, church spires, medieval turrets and half-timbered architecture he saw all around him.  When he returned to Nantes at 19, it was time to choose a profession.  Young Jacques Tissot wanted to become an architect.

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012.  All rights reserved.

Coming Fall 2012: The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, by Lucy Paquette

He turned his back on the Paris art world and left France a ruined man.

He painted better than Britain’s best but lived under suspicion.

Will he be ruined a second time?

French painter James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836 – 1902) hit his artistic stride in Paris from 1864 to 1870, painting stylish modern women and aristocrats in his chic new studio in the leisured years before the Franco-Prussian War.  After fighting bravely with the National Guard to defend Paris, he arrived in London with only a hundred francs to his name and a damaged reputation from some level of involvement with the radical Paris Commune.  But he was a tireless and methodical worker as well as a virtuoso of the Academic painting style that he learned from Hippolyte Flandrin (1809 – 1864), Louis Lamothe (1822 – 1869) and the Neoclassical work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867), and he quickly rebuilt his life.  In Paris, his wayward friends Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet struggled to sell their work; in London, his American expatriate friend Jimmy Whistler was a laughingstock.  Through Tissot’s shrewd decisions in London, his career skyrocketed for a second time, from 1871 to 1879, and again he become a multi-millionaire.

But popular tastes change, and this decade saw the birth of modern art.  Tissot was not a man ahead of his time – he was a man keeping up with the times.  When the Impressionists redefined art on the Continent and Whistler ushered in the Aesthetic Movement in Britain, Tissot was out of step.  With his essentially conservative work focusing on the psychological tension of the central figures and implied narrative, he quickly fell behind the trend of “art for art’s sake,” becoming a footnote in Art History.

The Hammock:  A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot is a psychological portrait, exploring the forces that unwound the career of this complex man.  After he fled Paris in 1871, there was no going back to his pre-war prominence.  If he wanted to survive in the British Establishment’s art market, he had to decide whether to make it on their terms — or live the life he wanted, with the woman he loved.

The Hammock’s cast of characters includes Jimmy Whistler, Louise Jopling, J.E. and Effie Millais, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, and many other figures of the dynamic 1870s during the birth of modern art in London and Paris.  Follow my blog for the stories behind the story!

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012.  All rights reserved.